Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn poster“So much of the past lingers in my heart” laments the melancholy song which closes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, (不散, sǎn) “I’ll remember with longing forever”. What is cinema if not an expression of irresolvable nostalgia, a kind of visual hiraeth for something that probably never quite existed but is so painfully missed. Everything in here stayed the same, but everything outside changed and now the present seems to be literally raining in leaving the last few fugitives from reality lost in halls of memory like lonely ghosts trapped on the wrong side of the screen.

On the wrong side of the screen is where we find ourselves. We begin in darkness with the opening narration from King Hu’s 1967 wuxia masterpiece Dragon Inn before the curtain in front of us begins to flicker and reveal an entire theatre filled with people. We pull back, and eventually the people are gone leaving just a few desperate souls returning to watch this now classic picture on what could be its very last evening as this theatre – now so unsuitable for the modern cinema environment, will be closing “temporarily” as soon as the reels stop turning.

Truth be told, no one much is even very interested in the movie. Some have merely come in to shelter from the rain, but unfortunately for them not even here is safe thanks to a leaky roof. The dazzling labyrinths of the backstage environment seem to have been co-opted by the local cruising community, men brushing past each other looking for another like them but needing to be sure their desires will be returned. Meanwhile they gaze at each other in the dim half light of the cinema screen, aching with unspeakable longing.

Longing is also something on the mind of an older gentlemen, seemingly the only one actually watching the film, who turns out to be one of its actors shedding a silent, solitary tear for time passed. Running into a friend much like himself outside he laments that “No one comes to the movies anymore”. Everyone has forgotten them, turning them into ghosts of cinema, immortal but unremembered. They have, in a sense, been attending their own funeral, entombed inside a moribund building lit only by spectres of the past.

All this is, however, secondary to the backstage drama of the lonely box office cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) and her inexpressible crush on the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) who never seems to be around when she needs him. Sadly cutting into a celebratory bun, she saves half of it for him – the least ambiguous expression of love which seems to be possible within this space. Slowly climbing the stairs with a lame leg, she gazes fondly at the screen while the heroine fearlessly dispatches a series of bad guys, but the light cast on her face seems only to emphasise her lack of courage before she sadly retreats back to the ticket booth where no customers require her services.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, a young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) munches peanuts and throws her legs over the backs of the seats in front much to the chagrin of the confused tourist whose confusion seems only to deepen when the crushing noise stops and the woman disappears (unbeknownst to him she’s on a mission to retrieve a lost shoe, or perhaps has evaporated into thin air). The first words spoken, which occur at the 45 minute mark, are to state that this theatre is haunted. Departed spirits all, the lonely denizens are indeed haunting the room and themselves as they attempt to escape the relentless march of the modern world through self-internment in a damp and crumbling mausoleum of cinema.

A lament for a dying world stripped bare by the passage of time, Tsai’s exploration of urban loneliness is a nostalgic elegy for a simpler age, filled with unresolvable longing and the ironic misconnection of an individualised communal activity. Stillness and solitude define all for these lonely, disconnected souls chasing oblivion. The past can never return, nor can the missed opportunities and brief moments spent bathed in celluloid splendour, but then perhaps you wouldn’t want it to anyway because then you couldn’t miss it. “I’ll remember with longing forever” – romanticism at its finest, but it’s a trap that’s difficult to resist.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Liu Lian by Yao Lee – the poignant song playing over the end credits.

Your Face (你的臉, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2018)

Your Face posterThe act of looking is an oddly intimate experience, which is perhaps why it becomes so uncomfortable to be looked at. The 13 souls who brave the camera for director Tsai Ming-Liang’s Your Face (你的臉, Nǐ de Liǎn) have all, obviously, given their consent to to become a subject for contemplation and are fully aware of being observed but still suffer the self-conscious embarrassment of being on show. That embarrassment is perhaps the point, pointing to a different kind of truth than the one we might have thought ourselves to be looking for but it’s also true that the camera becomes a kind of veil shielding us from our own anxiety safe in the knowledge that we can look all we please because we will never be seen.

Tsai’s subjects, aside from one or two, are mostly elderly residents of Taipei spotted by chance in the street and selected for their interesting faces. These faces, perhaps in contrast to those most often seen in cinema, are lined and worn. They wear their stories rather than tell them. Tsai gave few instructions, solely asking for an hour of time – 30 minutes spent in silence and 30 in conversation. The results are varied. Old men fall asleep, one plays a harmonica, a woman boils her life philosophy down to a love of making money, and a man laments a life wasted on pachinko and romantic disappointment.

Flickers of a smile erupt around a woman’s lips until she can’t contain her amusement any longer, finally breaking into a laugh in noting the strange incongruity of her position. It all looks so different on the screen than it looks at the scene. Tsai shoots in the same location as his earlier short Light, Zhongshan Hall – a public auditorium completed in 1936 when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (and therefore coincidentally close in age to many of Tsai’s subjects), but from different angles which almost obscure a sense of space until the hall itself gains its own portrait in the final shot, empty of life but somehow no longer passive.

Tsai encourages us to look deeply into the faces of others in manner which would be inappropriate in any other context. Yet the faces themselves react to Tsai’s camera and the people standing behind it. They do not and cannot react to us, except in an abstract sense, while we lurk behind a two way mirror protecting our own fragile senses of self from the same kind of scrutiny. Yet there is a kind of commonality in the way in which those on each side of the screen reach a point of mutual vacancy during which something else begins to emerge. The subjects fall into a kind of reverie, be it a literal sleep or motion towards activity such that of as one lady who decides to show off some of her “exercises” designed to stave off the effects of old age.

Those moments of activity, however, in breaking the stillness rupture the sense of contemplation in simply beholding an unfamiliar face. The ordinary had become uncanny, but now we have other concerns, narrative concerns with which to engage on an intellectual rather than instinctive level. On hearing the story, we forget about the face and concentrate on words while also forgetting that these stories are not really being told to us but to whoever is behind the camera and that the subject may also have lost consciousness of the camera itself while concentrating on relating their truth.

Then again, Tsai rejects the medium of documentary and we have only our own assumption that what we’re told is authentic and offered in the natural feeling of the moment. This is particularly true of the final subject who happens to be Tsai’s longterm muse Lee Kang-sheng (whose mother also appears in the film). Lee too muses on his family history, offering a meta comment on his face and its transitory likeness to that of his father, lamenting that though they say Lee’s father looked like him when he was young Lee knows that in “reality” he no longer is. Tsai’s camera turns its lens on ageing, on changes superficial and spiritual while remaining rooted to the spot as if fighting for an impossible objectivity. Closing in an empty room, Tsai nevertheless finds the light and the soul in the stonework as if to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t faces that were so important after all.


Your Face screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.

After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.

The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.

The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.

Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.

Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say. 


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words